ICC Fugitive In US Custody?

[An update to this post is available here, confirming Ongwen’s transfer to The Hague to stand trial].

Media and the US State Department spokeswoman are reporting that a man claiming to be a top-Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader, Dominic Ongwen, is in the custody of US forces in the Central African Republic after having apparently surrendered. As we’ve reported, the US government has since 2011 been providing operational assistance to an African Union Regional Task Force devoted to combating the threat posed by the LRA in central Africa. Efforts were significantly plussed up back in March 2013 with the addition of new personnel and dedicated equipment. We provide a deep backgrounder on the LRA hunt here. Ongwen was reportedly abducted into the LRA when he was 10-years-old, exemplifying the dilemma of victim-perpetrators. Back in 2005, there were rumors that he had been killed; DNA tests later disproved this (hat tip: @denisfitz & @SominiSengupta). LRA trackers report that he had become increasingly estranged from Kony, which may explain the apparent defection.

Ongwen is the subject of one of the International Criminal Court’s first arrest warrants (and an Interpol Red Notice). He stands accused of committing crimes against humanity and war crimes. This situation is reminiscent of events in April 2013, when Bosco Ntaganda surrendered himself to the US embassy in Kigali, Rwanda. Ntaganda was transported to The Hague in an ICC-chartered plane. No doubt similar arrangements will be made for Ongwen if his identity is confirmed. With the conviction of Thomas Dyilo Lubanga and the capture of Ntaganda, Sylvestre Mudacumura is now the only at-large defendant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo situation.

Ongwen is also subject to the United States’ War Crimes Reward Program (WCRP). This Program was originally designed to pay rewards leading to the arrest or capture of individuals indicted by the Yugoslav, Rwandan, or Sierra Leonean war crimes tribunals. Following the success of the Program in securing the arrest of indictees, Congress, with strong bipartisan support, amended the Program in 2013 to extend to individuals indicted by any international or hybrid criminal tribunal, including the International Criminal Court. Specifically, the Program allows the United States to pay a reward to an informant

for information leading to the arrest or conviction in any country, or the transfer to or conviction by an international criminal tribunal (including a hybrid or mixed tribunal), of any foreign national accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide.

Secretary Kerry subsequently added Ongwen and the other LRA indictees to the War Crime Rewards Program (a development Secretary Kerry passionately blogged about on the Huffington Post).

If the rumors of Ongwen’s capture prove to be true, there may be individuals who are eligible for a reward under this Program. Fugitives themselves are not eligible, but persons (including family members) who are instrumental in effectuating a fugitive’s arrest or surrender may be. No officer or employee of any entity of the Federal, state, or local government or of a foreign government who, while in the performance of his or her official duties, furnishes information is eligible. The names of informants and the details of reward payments are kept confidential (although the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations will be briefed), and recipients may be subject to protective measures, as warranted.

The WCRP is managed by the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice and an interagency rewards committee consisting of representatives from, inter alia, the Departments of Defense and Justice, the National Security Staff, Diplomatic Security, and the State Department’s relevant regional bureau. The Committee makes recommendations to the Secretary of State, who must ultimately approve the payment of any reward. In addition to the ICC fugitives, nine Rwandan fugitives remain subject to the Program along with one Sierra Leonean, who is presumed dead although this has never been substantiated. In the last couple of years, the United States made 14 payments at an average of $400,000 per recipient (with the largest payment being $2M) under the WCRP. The amount is calibrated to a range of variables, including the degree of risk undertaken by the informant, the value of the information provided, and the particulars of the alleged perpetrator.

The United States operates three other law enforcement rewards programs:

By way of comparison, the RFJ has paid over $125 million to over 80 people for actionable information. Stay tuned… 

About the Author(s)

Beth Van Schaack

Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of Human Rights, Stanford Law School; Former Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the U.S. State Department. All views are her own. Follow her on Twitter (@BethVanSchaack).